Director: Kunal Kohli
Cast: Diganth Manchale, Akkshay Dogra, Aishwarya Ojha, Kabir Duhan Singh, Vivan Bhatena, Navdeep Pallapolu
I love the Ramayana as a literary tale, Rama as a literary hero — flawed, yet repentant. It is when the Ramayana becomes a manual of ethics that little makes sense, because then we elevate Rama into a moral compass and simultaneously begin to defend every mistake he has made — why did Rama kill Vali with an arrow from behind like a coward, or why did he urge his brother Lakshmana to hack off the demoness Surpanakha's nose, or why did he disbelieve his wife, giving into Treta Yuga watercooler talk, asking her to walk into fire to prove her purity, and then banish her from the kingdom anyway?
Unfortunately, it is the morality tale we take seriously, and sometimes literally. The Ramanand Sagar 1980s Ramayana brought the text into the new age of television. With the Rath Yatra, Babri Demolition, and the latest curdling of "Jai Shree Ram" into a political warning, the context in which and with which we consume the Ramayana has changed. The question then arises — should the Ramayana be changed? A lot of experimentation with this question has yielded interesting results — Ram Ke Naam, Raavan, and Sita Sings The Blues are the most striking.
As we move from television to streaming, MX Player has come out with another reverentially toned Ramayana, Ramyug. Even if it refuses to infuse new ideas into the old plot, the idea is, on paper, promising. The text is full of visual splendour that we can finally, given our advancement in VFX and camera technology, render to the screen with the same awe.
So what does this Kunal Kohli production bring to the table that wasn't there before? While it is written in the stilted kintu-parantu Sanskritized Hindi, it brings a reed-thin semblance of newness. For one, all the men, including Rama Lakshmana and the evil Ravana are protein powdered into pectorals, none of whom wear the janeu — a sign of caste, and thus caste pride. At Sita's swayamvara, after Rama breaks the bow that would guarantee Sita's hand, Rama pauses the proceedings. He notes that his breaking of the bow only made him worthy of Sita. Whether Sita wants to marry him is up to her. Modern day consent discourse. This isn't a far-fetched connection because the show is designed to provide modern day morals every now and then. The war between Rama and Ravana ends with a dialectic where the latter gives a warning that in the modern day people will hide their black money in foreign banks. Ravana talks of how every year we will burn his effigies but house his instincts for evil within us anyway.
There's also a subtle moment at the very end where Rama notes that instead of praying to him at a site, they can fan the flames of Rama within — a dig at those who galvanized around the Ayodhya temple. Some old issues with a moral reading of the text are thrown under the rug of piety. The ending, of Sita's agni-pariksha, trial by fire, is so hand-wavy in its dialogue treatment, afraid of saying exactly what needs to be said. That Rama doubts his wife's fidelity. Instead there is the ho-humming with vague dialogues. The trial by fire takes place anyways, with Sita emerging triumphant and without resentment towards Rama for making her do this. At the end there is a voice-over reminding us that Sita walking over fire to prove her "purity" is an example of the eternal love between Sita and Rama. This means that the entire episode of Rama banishing Sita is axed.
There are other, smaller flourishes. Rama here doesn't urge Lakshmana to hack off Surpanakha's nose — it is undertaken in a moment of impulse. This is reminiscent of some Buddhist Ramayanas where Rama is a bodhisattva, so his brother Lakshmana performs all the violence associated with Rama, so Rama is free of the karmic and the discourse burden.
What the show also does is assume our familiarity with the story — a fair assumption given most Indians are aware of the proceedings, even if skeletally. No character needs to be established and so he can begin at the most interesting moment of the tale — Sita's kidnapping by Ravana, with flashbacks to Sita's marriage, and later, Rama's banishment from Ayodhya. The linear telling of the Ramayana has been chopped into flashbacks and flashforwards to make for a quicker, more promising retelling.
The promise is, alas, squandered. The writing is unchanged from the late 1980s, the perspective largely still so entirely in awe of Rama, it makes him a stock caricature of goodness. There are long stretches, discussions of dharma, but all assuming that Rama has the right answer; that Rama isn't introspective, doesn't need to question the limits of dharma, because he just knows. He has that superciliousness of a modern day guru who spouts nonsense with such conviction, there is no space for doubt. He is constantly questioned though about the violence he inflicts, and his answers are woefully inadequate.
But the real loss of opportunity is in the visuals. The matchbox-like cities, the green-screen like palaces, the luxury resort-like forest (shot in Mauritius) — nothing works. The tailor-made excuses for drama in the text are not utilized for maximum visual effect — the kidnapping scene of Sita feels blocked like a high-school theater play. All the wars that Hanuman waged over the oceans as he makes his way to Lanka — each a unique visual excuse to distort space and size — are axed. The hideous monkey facial hair, the cheap child-toy like props, the uninspired costumes — this show is a cataclysmic visual failure. Kohli has never proven his chops as a visual filmmaker as much as an urban one. To trade an urban story for the diametrically opposite one was a big gamble.
The final war is stretched over almost two 40-minute episodes, and yet has none of the rousing war cries, and inventive visuals to make it worth it. A lot more of the same we have seen, with a voice-over tracking in missing pieces now and then. I constantly wondered what it was that the audience would get from this. The phrase "family viewing" is constantly being used in the promotional campaigns — to attempt to make streaming, mostly on phones, and thus mostly an individual act, into a communal one is the end goal here. To expect from 2021 the viewing patterns of 1991. There is something both heroic and moronic about that ambition. A mix that is like any great literary hero. A mix that is like Rama himself.